U.K. Trade Drags on Growth as Gap Hits Most in Eight Years

  • Trade gap widens to 13.3 billion pounds, most since 2008
  • Figures contain ammunition for both sides in Brexit debate

Are Trade Deals Off the Table if Britain Does a Brexit?

The U.K. economy received no help from its international trade performance in the first quarter, official figures published Tuesday suggest.

The deficit widened to 13.3 billion pounds ($19 billion), the most since the start of 2008, from 12.2 billion pounds in the fourth quarter of 2015, the Office for National Statistics said. The shortfall in goods alone was the widest since records began in 1998.

The figures reinforce a picture of an economy being driven by domestic spending, with net trade set to act as a drag on growth for a third quarter in a row. Growth slowed to 0.4 percent in the first quarter and recent surveys point to a further loss of momentum as uncertainty grips consumers and businesses ahead of the June 23 referendum on European Union membership.

A second estimate of gross domestic product will be published on May 26, revealing the contributions from exporters, consumers, business investment and government spending. Samuel Tombs, an economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics in London, estimates that net trade subtracted about 0.3 percentage point from growth in the first quarter.

“This does not imply that the preliminary GDP estimate will be revised down later this month, but it does underline that the recovery is struggling on all fronts,” he said.

Brexit Debate

In March, the total trade deficit narrowed to 3.8 billion pounds and the 6 percent decline in sterling this year may provide a boost to exports in the coming months. For goods, the gap was little changed at 11.2 billion pounds, leaving the quarterly deficit at 34.7 billion pounds. Export volumes fell 0.1 percent in the first quarter and imports rose 1.5 percent.

Tuesday’s figures offered something for both sides in the EU referendum campaign. Britain is less reliant on the EU than it was. Shipments of goods to the 28-nation bloc have fallen by almost a fifth over the past four years and now account for 47 percent of total exports compared with 54 percent in 2011. In the first quarter, the trade deficit with the EU widened to a record 23.9 billion pounds.

By contrast, exports to non-EU countries have grown by 6 percent, providing ammunition to those who say Britain can thrive outside the EU single market by targeting fast-growing economies such as India. Separate figures highlighted the weakness of demand in Europe, with industrial production falling in both Germany and France, the two largest euro-region economies.

“If we vote ‘Leave,’ we will be able to take back control of our trade and do deals with growing economies rather than being shackled to the failing economies of Europe,” Matthew Elliott, who heads the official Brexit campaign, said in a statement.

Still, the EU remains the biggest market for British exporters, which sell three times more to its member states than they do to the U.S. A British Chambers of Commerce survey Tuesday found that six in 10 exporters favor staying in the EU.

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